Watch a short video with excerpts from Lee Siegel's tour of the Met's modern art collection. Ah, the museum audio tour. Pay a few dollars, spend a few minutes fumbling with whatever bulky playback device the museum bought by the hundreds last month, and you're on your way! Prepare to absorb a few carefully scripted, thoroughly vetted, and scrupulously inoffensive endorsements of works throughout the gallery.
I recently listened to the tour for one small art museum, and you know what I noticed? I noticed how often the soporific tour guide told me to notice things in the paintings. Notice the loitering group of men. Notice the light coming from the side. Notice the clown's cheekbones. OK, I've noticed. Now what? Wake me when you get to the juicy stuff.
Museums, historical sites, and the companies that produce their audio tours aren't completely honest with you. They can't very well say things like "critics think this work is terrifically overrated, but we keep it on the wall because we sell a thousand posters of it a day," or "we know this sketch looks profoundly boring, but here's why it's the most interesting thing you'll see all day," or "we only hang this painting here because old Mrs. Dimbledumble wouldn't have donated the new East Wing otherwise."
They can't say things like that, but we can. And now, thanks to the growing prevalence of iPods and other digital audio players, you can download Slate's unauthorized tours and take them with you. If you happen to be in New York (or plan to be soon), you can start right now with Slate art critic Lee Siegel's tour of what he considers the most overrated and underrated paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Modern Art Gallery.
Here's how it works:The tour consists of 11 MP3 files, each corresponding to a different painting, and a map of the gallery (PDF format) to help you locate the paintings. We've gathered all the files together in a zipped folder, which you can download here.
Or, if you'd like to watch some short excerpts from the tour online, click here for a streaming video "trailer."
We chose the Met as our first subject not because there's anything wrong with it or its own $6 audio tour (which is actually somewhat better than average). Quite the opposite. We chose the Met because its collection is so rich there's room for a hundred audio tours—the Met's, ours, and yours too, if you feel like making one.
In fact, as we've been developing our audio tours over the last few months we've noticed a few museums and some of their patrons playing around with MP3 tours. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was the subject of a recent class project by students at Marymount Manhattan College, who recorded their own impressionistic and often ribald thoughts about several of the museum's most famous paintings. In an apparent reaction to the students (whose downloadable tour was the subject of a front page New York Times story), MoMA itself now offers portions of its official tour for free download.
(A number of other museums are making their official tours available online, including the Orange County Museum of Art and the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia, both in California. The Austin Museum of Art in Texas is offering cell-phone tours of an Annie Leibovitz exhibit, seizing upon the communications medium most appropriate to celebrity photography.)
Our aim, beginning with Lee Siegel's tour of the Met, is to create an experience that blends the irreverence and honesty of the DIY tours with the professionalism of the official versions. And ours is short—you should be able to make it through the Modern Art Gallery in a little over 20 minutes. So, try it on your lunch break, New Yorkers.